The real Mr Big?
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is the nominal head of the world's 78 million Anglican Christians. But he now faces a challenge from Nigerian archbishop Peter Akinola, whose fiercely anti-gay stance could tear the Communion apart.
By Stephen Bates
Wednesday February 14, 2007
Mention the name of the Most Rev Peter Jasper Akinola, the primate of Nigeria, to Rowan Williams, our Archbishop of Canterbury, and you tend to get a twitch of his luxuriant eyebrows, a quizzical look and, maybe, just the hint of a rolling of the eyeballs. Dr Williams is, by virtue of his position, nominal head of the 78 million-strong Anglican Communion, the world's third largest Christian denomination. But it's an open question today, as the church's archbishops from around the world meet in an agreeable hotel complex overlooking the shimmering Indian Ocean outside Dar es Salaam, whether the most important man in the church now - and therefore one of the most influential Christians on the planet - is actually the Archbishop of Abuja.
Affable, if slightly sinister looking thanks to his tinted glasses, the 63-year-old primate of Nigeria now heads what is almost certainly the largest national Anglican Church in the world - 18.5 million Nigerians at the last count. That's fewer than the 27 million who officially belong to the Church of England, but, as we know, only 5% of them make it through the doors on any given Sunday.
Today it will be Akinola calling the shots among the bishops gathered in Tanzania, and he is enjoying his new-found eminence. After more than a century of being patronised, overlooked and ignored by their white proselytisers, the church's black brethren are not going to take it any more. And none is more powerful than Akinola. "If the Church is not evangelising, it is like a dead fire," he says. His voice booms out from the Nigerian capital; the bishops of the Church of England, the Episcopalians of the United States and the Anglicans of Canada can announce where they stand on civil partnerships, the election of a gay bishop or the ordination of homosexual people and within hours, sometimes within minutes, Akinola's response comes hurtling back over the internet. the rest